Eco-Humanism?

At New Matilda, Sarah Burnside argues that:

The simplest and most compelling argument for addressing climate change is humanist in nature. As human beings, we must take seriously our need to care for each other, whether at the specific level of provision of universal healthcare benefits and international aid, or in the more abstract sense of societal cohesiveness. By extension, policies put forward to combat the effects of climate change need not be justified by invoking Gaia or anthropomorphising dolphins or polar bears.

This statement comes, not, as one might expect, as a criticism of the Green movement’s tendency to mythologise, or anthropomorphise the natural world, but at the end of an attack on ‘deniers’. She concludes:

Rather, progressives sensibly argue that human beings have a duty to each other, including to future generations. Humans will fail in this duty if we place short-term economic gain over the environmental conditions which will shape the lives of humanity in the future.

Arguments like these are drawn not from a “green religion”, but from a belief in humanity.

Burnside must, however, recognise that there certainly exists a ‘green religion’, or at least, that irrational ideas do operate, and achieve influence within the green ‘movement’. She must also recognise that these are the principle weaknesses of the movement she wishes to advance, and moreover, are the principle object of the ‘deniers’ arguments, and ought to be the object of her criticism too.

But as we have pointed out before, it is very hard for environmentalists to criticise their own. It is not a movement which is able to reflect critically on itself, or even its own elements. It is, so to speak, as if its ‘own parts do not smell’. But in fact we don’t need to look far to find intensely anti-human and influential currents within the Green movement that stand opposed to political and material freedoms – so much of it fails Burnside’s test of humanism, comprehensively.

So what are we left with, if we strip away all of the anti-human elements of the entire green movement? We think: nothing.

Burnside may want to disagree. In her attack on ‘denialists’, however, she gives us only two clues as to what a green humanism might consist of:

…human beings have a duty to each other, including to future generations…

and

…we must take seriously our need to care for each other, whether at the specific level of provision of universal healthcare benefits and international aid, or in the more abstract sense of societal cohesiveness.

This account of humanism doesn’t identify anything which makes it distinct. You don’t need to be an environmentalist to believe in ‘universal healthcare’, or for social cohesion, for instance. The rhetorical implication of Burnside’s article is that the ‘deniers’ she lists just don’t care about people. Burnside talks more about policy than about precepts, and reveals more about her own prejudices than her opponents’.

As we have argued here, one can understand climate change as a problem that needs addressing without believing that the problems stand as moral imperatives that demand special form of politics. We could – hypothetically – for instance, argue that an Arctic free from summer sea ice is, while in some senses regrettable, perhaps a price worth paying for the development that might cause it. We could, again hypothetically, emphasise that development offers the people who are most vulnerable to climate a better hope of both prosperity and survival than does a ‘sustainable’ lifestyle.

These propositions are, however, anathema to almost the entire green movement, who will put either the worst-case scenario or the precautionary principle in the way of such a moral calculation.

This is because there is a fundamental idea operating within environmentalism which is incompatible with humanism. It proposes that our principle relationship is not with each other, but with the natural world. Accordingly, ‘duty to each other’ exists principally as a duty to the planet, and ‘societal cohesiveness’ comes from without humanity, being predicated on a sustainable relationship with the natural world. In other words, human relationships are – and must be – mediated by the ‘environment’. These precepts operate prior to the humanist ethic that Burnside attempts to claim for the green movement: humanism is delimited by environmentalism. A failure to recognise these environmental precepts is, according to environmentalists, equivalent to wanting to destroy humanity in an environmental catastrophe.

There is no such thing as eco-humanism, nor progressive environmentalism. Environmentalism is simply anti-human by degree – the extent to which any variant of environmentalism is anti-human is the extent to which it subjects humans to environmental ‘ethics’.

Any notion which doesn’t take the possibility of global catastrophe for granted is excluded from the discussion, and so the discussion about how to organise our lives is premised on the idea that if we don’t recognise environmental imperatives, we will necessarily create Thermageddon. The problem with any such calculation is that its conclusion is its premise. It exists prior to the scientific investigation of our influence on the climate, and it exists prior to the discussion about how human society will in turn be influenced by that change, and how we ought to respond.